Monday, January 2, 2012

Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games

I read most of The Hunger Games on a transatlantic flight after my Xanex wore off.  I’m not the biggest fan of YA books, but I am a fan of dystopian fiction, and this one came highly recommended by my girlfriend.  Plus I wanted to have read it on the off-chance that the movie ends up showing in Rome in the original language.  Catching movies in English in the theater is a rare treat for me these days.

The first chapter unfolds like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  The citizens of an impoverished village gather in the town square to witness the random selection of a boy and girl who will compete in The Hunger Games.  Through the narration of the novel’s heroine Katniss, we learn that the Games are an annual televised event in which two kids from each of the twelve districts of Panema (future North America) are placed in an arena and forced to fight to the death.  The last one standing wins.  Sort of a cross between The Running Man and Battle Royale.

While reading this story, I couldn’t help but draw lines between the Games and the Roman Colosseum.  Typically, gladiatorial matches in ancient Rome would only continue until one of the contestants was beaten into submission.  Given the high cost of training and maintaining a gladiator, it would have been highly impractical to let one die in each match.  However, if the emperor decided that the audience needed to see some action, he would order two men to fight to the death.  Throughout the book, Katniss contemplates the dichotomy of her role in the Games.  She strives to win the approval of the audience, while simultaneously hating them for for putting her in this situation.  She makes allies with other contestants, knowing she may be forced to kill them later.  You can imagine the gladiators having similar hang-ups.

I’m pretty sure this isn't an accident, given the novel’s numerous none-too-subtle Roman references.  There’s a character called Flavius, who shares a name with the 1st century emperor who founded the Colosseum.  There’s a brief mention of a previous contestant named Titus, who went insane and  proceeded to mutilate and eat his dead opponents.  This could be a reference to the emperor Titus, who launched the Inaugural Games.  It could also be an allusion to Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s play about a fictional Roman general, which is loaded with murder, rape, mutilation, back-stabbing, and cannibalism.  And of course, there’s the fact that the Games are hosted by a guy named Caesar.

The basic premise of the book is nothing new, but Collins makes it worthwhile by placing it in the context of the Reality TV Age.  And, like all stories about TV taken to the hypothetical extreme, it begs the question, “Would you watch it?”

I would, if they used the cast of Jersey Shore.

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